Archive for March, 2012

Razorback baseball: Hot, hot, hot

Friday, March 30th, 2012

University of Arkansas baseball has never been hotter than it is right now.

Large crowds show up on a regular basis in Fayetteville for games at Baum Stadium.

People in all 75 counties talk about the diamond Hogs.

Fans drive in from central Arkansas, east Arkansas and south Arkansas for weekend series.

A statewide radio network allows Arkansans in every corner of the state to keep up with the team.

In researching an article on Razorback baseball that will run in the May edition of Arkansas Life magazine, I came to realize just how far the program has come.

When Norm DeBriyn agreed to take charge of the Razorback baseball program in December 1969, few people other than the players paid attention. The stadium was at the old Washington County Fairgrounds. There were rocks in the infield, holes in the outfield and broken boards in the fence.

The team didn’t even have a full-time coach.

DeBriyn moved his squad from that cow pasture to George Cole Field in 1975. With financial assistance from former star players Kevin McReynolds, Johnny Ray and Tim Lollar, lights were added in 1985, making it possible to host the Southwest Conference Tournament for the first time.

The Razorbacks were 567-142-2 at George Cole Field.

With the construction of Baum Stadium in time for the 1996 season, Razorback baseball advanced to the next level. Without Baum Stadium, it’s doubtful that Dave Van Horn would have left his job as head coach at Nebraska to replace DeBriyn at Arkansas.

Baum, considered by many baseball experts to be the finest college stadium in the country, is a key. It was a key to getting Van Horn, and it’s a key to recruiting the current players in the program.

Razorback fans everywhere have Norm DeBriyn, Charlie and Nadine Baum, and Pat and Willard Walker to thank.

Charlie Baum and Willard Walker were among Sam Walton’s first store managers and became investors when Wal-Mart Stores went public. The Baum and Walker families, among the many so-called Wal-Mart millionaires in northwest Arkansas, became close to DeBriyn through the years.

DeBriyn, working with then-athletic director Frank Broyles, convinced the two couples to help fund Baum Stadium.

The stadium was designed by the nationally known firm HOK. It has room for more than 10,000 spectators with amenities that are better than those found at most minor league professional ballparks.

In 1998, Baum was named by Baseball America as the nation’s top college facility.

Five years later, it ranked second.

“Since its construction, Arkansas officials have received numerous solicitations by coaches and administrators from across the country for blueprints and tours … in an attempt to capture some of its charm,” the university’s baseball media guide states. “Even though Baum Stadium has been replicated to some degree, no other place in the country has the atmosphere that Baum Stadium brings to college baseball, which is why it has been host to five NCAA regionals and an NCAA super regional. Baum Stadium was one of the nation’s best facilities when it was constructed, but since then has undergone three renovations, making it the envy of visiting teams.”

Yes, that sounds like public relations hype.

But those who attend big games at Baum will tell you the atmosphere at the corner of Razorback Road and 15th Street is unlike anything else in college baseball. With Van Horn’s arrival following DeBriyn’s 2002 retirement, upgrades to what was still a relatively new stadium began as interest in the program continued to increase.

Prior to the 2003 season, hitting and pitching cages were enclosed and 2,600 chair-back seats were added.

Prior to the 2004 season, the university added 12 luxury boxes, coaches’ offices and a scoreboard with a video screen and message center. The original turf was torn out and replaced with rye grass. That, in turn, was replaced by hybrid Bermuda grass prior to the 2005 season. Arkansas now has one of the best playing surfaces in the country.

Prior to the 2007 season, another 20 luxury boxes were built, restrooms were added, 1,000 more chair-back seats were put in, the picnic area was expanded and new lights were erected. Capacity went up to 10,737 seats with 8,237 of those being of the chair-back variety.

In 2007, the Razorbacks became the first team in NCAA history to average more than 8,000 tickets sold per game. The actual attendance average was 6,007 per game, a school record.

No. 1 Arizona State came calling in April 2009 for a two-game midweek series. In the second game, 11,014 people were in attendance with 11,434 tickets sold. Both numbers set stadium records.

“It’s an incredible facility,” DeBriyn says. “There’s not one like it anywhere in the country. There’s no way to describe the excitement our players and coaches have when they take the field.”

“It’s a family atmosphere,” Van Horn adds. “It’s so nice to walk onto the field and see all of that red. It’s also nice to know people are now coming from all over the state to see Razorback baseball games.”

That rocky field at the fairgrounds DeBriyn inherited 42 years ago has become a distant memory.

DeBriyn had come to Arkansas in 1969 from Colorado State College (now the University of Northern Colorado) to teach first aid, driver’s education and other courses in the College of Education.

As a first aid specialist, he was on the sideline at Razorback Stadium when the Arkansas football team fell to Texas, 15-14, in the Big Shootout in December 1969.

“The football program was first class all the way, but none of the other sports at Arkansas measured up to what we had back in Colorado even though it was a smaller school,” DeBriyn says.

Wayne Robbins, who had played baseball at Mississippi State in the 1950s and later played in the Baltimore Orioles organization, coached the Razorback baseball team on a part-time basis from 1966-69 while pursuing his doctorate and serving as an associate to the dean of arts and sciences.

In December 1969, Robbins announced that he had accepted the position of press secretary for U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

“I knew I wanted to coach,” DeBriyn says. “I had coached the freshman baseball team for one year at Northern Colorado and had five years of high school experience. I applied for the baseball job when Wayne left. They gave the job to somebody else, and he quit after one day.

“George Cole called me in and gave me the job. He said, ‘Here’s the baseball file.’ Everything was in one file folder. That’s how important baseball was back then.”

Cole, a Bauxite native who had starred in football at Arkansas in the 1920s, was about to replace the legendary John Barnhill as athletic director.

The school had fielded its first baseball team in 1897, but the sport was discontinued from 1930-46.

Deke Brackett was the coach for three seasons once baseball resumed in 1947. Athletic trainer Bill Ferrell took the job in 1950 and compiled a 139-149 record in 16 seasons.

Robbins was 50-51 in his four seasons as the Razorback baseball coach.

DeBriyn, a fiery native of Ashland, Wis., took over a program that long had competed as an independent. Due to the lack of an adequate travel budget and the lack of interest in baseball, the school hadn’t been a part of the Southwest Conference in baseball since 1926.

DeBriyn’s first team went 19-13 in 1970. During the next three seasons, the Razorbacks were 23-18-1, 16-16 and 23-7-1 with the 1973 team earning an NCAA tournament bid as an independent. Arkansas lost two consecutive games at the regional tournament in Arlington, Texas, but it was obvious DeBriyn was building something that soon would be more than an afterthought in Fayetteville.

By the 1974 season, DeBriyn had accomplished one of his major goals: Returning Arkansas to the Southwest Conference in baseball. The Razorbacks were 22-21 overall and 9-15 in the SWC that spring.

Arkansas had another losing record in conference play as the Hogs went 8-14 in the league in 1975. They were 12-12 in SWC play a year later.

The 1977 Razorback team improved to 33-18 overall and 14-10 in the conference, the start of 14 consecutive seasons with winning conference records for DeBriyn.

Razorback baseball had begun attracting a fan base in northwest Arkansas while earning statewide media attention for the first time.

Arkansas made its first trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., in 1979. The Hogs had records of 49-15 overall and 19-5 in the SWC as they finished as the national runner-up to Cal State-Fullerton.

The Razorbacks won four games at the NCAA East Regional in Tallahassee, Fla., to earn their way to the CWS.

Arkansas posted three more wins in Omaha in what at the time was a double elimination event. Fullerton, which already had a World Series loss, beat the Hogs, 13-10. Fullerton won the second game between the two teams, 2-1.

Still, it was clear that Arkansas baseball had arrived.

Another landmark moment in the program’s history came in 1985 when Arkansas hosted the Southwest Conference Tournament and took home the trophy with three consecutive victories. A win over Baylor was followed with back-to-back wins over traditional national power Texas.

Arkansas made the College World Series that season and finished third. The Hogs ended the 1985 season with a 51-15 record.

In 1987, Arkansas won the Southwest Conference, finished fifth in the College World Series and ended the spring with a 51-16-1 record.

In 1989, Arkansas won another conference championship and found itself in the College World Series for the third time in five seasons. The Razorbacks finished fifth in the CWS and concluded the ’89 season with a 51-16 record.

Van Horn had played at Arkansas for one season in 1981. In his lone season as a Razorback, he earned All-SWC honors and was the conference’s newcomer of the year.

After three years as a player in the Atlanta Braves organization, Van Horn joined DeBriyn’s staff as a graduate assistant. The Razorbacks were 184-71-1 in the four years Van Horn coached with DeBriyn, making it to the College World Series twice.

“I had talked to Norm in the spring of 2001 and really felt he was ready to step down,” says Van Horn, who was at Nebraska at the time. “If they wanted me as the head coach at Arkansas, I was willing to go at that point. Norm called me while we were at the Big 12 Tournament in 2001 and said he was going to coach another year.”

Nebraska went to the College World Series in 2001, the school gave Van Horn a lucrative contract extension, a new stadium opened in March 2002 and Nebraska returned to the CWS later that year.

“Suddenly, it became a lot harder to move,” Van Horn says.

DeBriyn says Van Horn “was going to be my recommendation whenever I decided to retire. I made that known to Coach Broyles, and Coach Broyles had begun to follow his career closely after Dave went to Nebraska. … In retrospect, things have worked out.”

Van Horn accepted Broyles’ offer. Almost a decade into the Van Horn era, college baseball has never been hotter at Arkansas.

DeBriyn, now a vice president of the Razorback Foundation, must smile these days when he thinks about where things stood at the start of 1970 and how far they’ve come.

A tipping point for Little Rock

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Perhaps downtown Little Rock is finally at a tipping point.

I say this following a recent afternoon when I parked my car at the intersection of Main and Second streets in downtown Little Rock and walked south to the newly remodeled Arkansas Repertory Theatre to hear a talk by Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

After hearing Landesman speak, I headed over to the Clinton School of Public Service to hear Susan Piedmont-Palladino, the curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, talk about “intelligent cities” — the intersection of information technology and urban life and design.

The two talks that day had a lot in common. Landesman spoke about “creative placemaking” and the $150,000 grant that was awarded last year by the NEA to the city of Little Rock to plan the development of a “creative corridor” on Main Street.

I was reminded once again of the wealth of interesting speakers who now come to Little Rock on a regular basis. It’s pretty unusual for a city this size and, in my mind, one of the great amenities of living here.

This past Sunday, I went with my son to see the St. Louis Cardinals exhibit at the Clinton Center (we are both Cardinals fans and are ready for the major league season to start). Afterward, we walked across the pedestrian bridge to North Little Rock and then walked through the Bill Clark Wetlands (at least the small part that wasn’t flooded).

Hundreds of people were enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon downtown. I was reminded of what downtown Little Rock can be. Main Street, however, remains the bleeding sore in the middle of downtown.

There are several reasons I believe downtown (Main Street in particular) may finally be at a tipping point. They include:

1. The announcement earlier this month that the Doyle Rogers Co. and Moses Tucker Real Estate are going to restore the seven-story building on Main Street that was built as the flagship of Blass Department Stores. The developers also plan to renovate an adjoining three-level annex.

The Blass building, constructed in 1906, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses have a track record of actually making things happen downtown (there are about five people in this city that I consider true visionaries, and Moses and Tucker are on my list). The fact that they’re now branching out from the River Market District and onto Main Street sends a strong message to other potential developers. I’m talking about developers who can really move projects forward, not the type of out-of-state developers we’ve seen so often in the past who make big promises for downtown Little Rock but have neither the will nor the capital to transform those promises into reality.

The Blass building project will include almost 100,000 square feet of office space, room for six to eight retail establishments and about 20 loft-style apartments.

2. Stephens Inc.’s renovation of a historic building it owns at the corner of Capitol and Main. Yes, I know there are empty lots of both sides of Main Street where the Stephens interests tore down buildings.

The reason I’m willing to cut Warren Stephens some slack is because we’ve seen at both the Capital Hotel and Alotian that when he moves ahead with a project, he does it right. With the economy turning around, hopefully the time is near when Warren will announce his plans for those lots.

3. The $6 million renovation of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, which could serve as a catalyst for other creative outlets along Main Street.

“The arts is an ecosystem,” the NEA’s Landesman said. “The arts not only employs the artisans, it employs the restaurant owner down the street.”

Bob Hupp, the Rep’s producing artistic director, noted that the Rep has long been “an urban pioneer for the economic development of downtown Little Rock. We would love to have some company.”

Indeed, the Rep’s neighbors are mostly state offices that empty at 4:30 p.m., unused buildings and what’s basically a porno video store.

4. Grants and available capital: The city has received important planning grants the past couple of years to study what should be done along Main Street. Maybe the passage last year of the one-cent increase in the sales tax will now provide capital to help make parts of those plans a reality.

Green America’s Capitals is a project of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in association with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The goal is to help state capitals develop distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

Little Rock was one of five state capitals — Boston, Hartford, Jefferson City and Charleston, W.Va., were the others — selected in 2010 to participate in the program. Five additional cities were added in 2011.

A three-day workshop was conducted last April to pull together various ideas for Main Street. They included:

— Continuous street design for the length of Main Street, including stormwater management, crosswalks, trees, lighting and benches.

— A park along Main Street that’s large enough to host events.

— Development of the overpass at Interstate 630 to better connect south Main Street with downtown.

A 43-page plan came out of that workshop. Combine that with the previously mentioned NEA grant for a “creative corridor” plan. That blueprint calls for the renovation of buildings across the street from the Rep for use by area arts organizations and affordable units in which artists can live and work.

The University of Arkansas Community Design Center partnered with Marlon Blackwell Architects to work on the design.

Landesman noted that “communities across the country are using smart design and leveraging the arts to enhance quality of life and promote their identities.”

Mayor Mark Stodola called the NEA grant “exactly the stimulus the city needs to bring back Main Street. With the Arkansas Repertory Theatre at the core, bringing other arts organizations to Main Street will give the corridor a cultural excitement and identity that is so vital to the renaissance of our downtown.”

Stephen Luoni of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center said the project has the potential to be a “national model for consolidating cultural arts functions — artist housing, production spaces, galleries and performance spaces — as a catalyst for sustained urban development in downtown.”

Too many plans for this city, of course, have simply gathered dust. The city board must decide to use part of that new sales tax revenue to complete the infrastructure portions of the Greening America’s Capitals and NEA “creative corridor” plans.

If the city will do its part from an infrastructure perspective, I have no doubt that private investments will follow.

5. The Oxford American’s plan to transform the old Juanita’s location on south Main Street into a Southern cultural center (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Oxford American board).

The addition of a Southern bistro, perhaps a gift shop and use of the performance space several nights a week for everything from music events to lectures to poetry readings will add momentum to what’s already happening along Main Street south of Interstate 630.

“The Oxford American occupies a niche,” said Warwick Sabin, the publisher of the noted Southern literary quarterly. “We protect and perpetuate the best of Southern culture.”

If done correctly, the OA complex will complement existing downtown attractions such as the Clinton Center, the Museum of Discovery, Heifer International, the Old State House and the Historic Arkansas Museum.

There also are things happening away from Main Street that lead me to believe we might be at a tipping point for that crucial downtown corridor:

1. Little Rock and surrounding cities in the metropolitan statistical area survived the Great Recession pretty well. In fact, it was announced in December that the Little Rock MSA had jumped from 93rd to 19th in the Milken Institute’s annual rankings of America’s 200 best performing cities.

2. The passage earlier this month of a bond issue for the Central Arkansas Library System will allow momentum to continue in the River Market District. The bond issue will provide $13 million for an auditorium, a parking deck and other improvements to the already impressive downtown CALS campus — main library, Arkansas Studies Institute and Cox Creative Center — that Bobby Roberts (who also is on my list of Little Rock visionaries) has built.

The hope is that a public-private partnership will allow Moses-Tucker to move forward with a development to be known as The Arcade. Continued momentum in the River Market District is necessary if development is to spread to Main Street.

Now if only the folks at City Hall would plug that hole in the River Trail, we would really be on a roll as a city.

New Orleans roars back

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

College basketball teams will continue to battle tonight, Saturday and Sunday for the right to head to New Orleans for the Final Four.

As the Crescent City prepares to host college basketball’s premier event, there’s a remarkable story that needs to be told. It’s the story of New Orleans’ recovery just more than six years after Hurricane Katrina delivered a blow that many Americans thought would permanently cripple the city.

Writing in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Douglas McCollam noted: “Katrina certainly gave New Orleans the opening to remake its failed institutions. Today about 80 percent of the city’s public schools, formerly among the nation’s worst, are charter schools competing on performance to attract students. The city’s antiquated Charity Hospital will soon be replaced by a state-of-the-art medical center, part of a larger, 2.4-square-mile medical corridor anchored by a new cancer research facility and BioInnovation Center.

“Thanks to aggressive tax incentives, this year New Orleans is on pace to supplant New York as the biggest feature-filmmaking center outside of Los Angeles, a successful model the city is seeking to replicate in both music and software design.

“These and other initiatives are changing the city’s commercial culture. Once viewed almost exclusively as a booze-soaked destination for debauchery, New Orleans was tabbed last year by Forbes as the No. 1 brain magnet in the country for college graduates, and Inc. magazine dubbed it the ‘coolest start-up city in America.’

“Last month the city beat out a dozen rivals for a new GE Capital technology center that will bring about 300 high-end tech jobs.”

I was on vacation with my family at Mexico Beach in Florida when I received a call from the White House on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. I was informed that I had been appointed by President Bush to the regional economic development organization known as the Delta Regional Authority.

On the way back to Arkansas, we spent two nights in New Orleans. Melissa and I took our boys to mass at St. Louis Cathedral on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 14, followed by breakfast at Brennan’s. It was a wonderful day.

As we pulled out the following morning, we had no way of knowing that two weeks later, Katrina would hit, the levees would fail and 80 percent of New Orleans would be flooded.

I began my work for the DRA soon after the storm — our area included land on both sides of the Mississippi River down to its mouth in Plaquemines Parish — and made a number of business-related trips to New Orleans during the next four years.

I vividly remember those early days after the storm when the few restaurants that were open were devoid of tourists. One night, Chef Paul Prudhomme sat on the sidewalk outside his K. Paul’s in the French Quarter just to thank people for being in the city.

For those of us who love New Orleans, those were sad days in late 2005. I already could sense the change in the city by the time I left government service in 2009. Young entrepreneurs were flocking to New Orleans by then. They were attracted by the city’s food, music and other aspects of its culture. They also were attracted by the idea of being a part of the rebirth of one of the world’s unique port cities.

For decades, NOLA’s stale, cliquish business leadership had watched as other Southern cities took off — Houston, Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte and others.

New Orleans stagnated. New people and new ideas simply weren’t welcome. In New Orleans, you literally needed to be a member of the club.

In “Rising Tide,” his classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, John Barry writes: “As exclusive as the Carnival balls were, membership in the clubs of New Orleans marked the real insiders, for the krewes had a larger membership than the clubs.

“The city’s first club was formed in 1832, four years before New York’s Union Club. In 1842, the Boston Club, named after a card game, was founded, and several men, including Louisiana senators John Slidell and Judah P. Benjamin, subsequently a Confederate cabinet officer and then adviser to Queen Victoria, belonged to both the Boston and Union clubs.

“Then came the Pickwick Club and the Louisiana Club. All were exclusive, but the Louisiana Club has been called the most exclusive club in the country; only members were allowed within its walls.

“In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt visited New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic. It was an act of heroism that won the city’s heart — in the preceding century, the disease had killed 175,000 people in Louisiana alone — and the Louisiana Club gave a luncheon in his honor. But before even the president, himself from one of the nation’s grandest families, could enter the club, he had first to be made an honorary member.”

Now, the once inbred business culture of New Orleans pulses with energy.

And Americans are taking note of what’s happening there. In addition to hosting the Final Four, New Orleans hosted college football’s national championship game earlier this year. Next year, the Super Bowl is in what’s now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“New Orleans will be front and center on the world stage for much of the next decade, hosting a series of national and international sporting events,” says James Carville, who has turned into the city’s most high-profile booster. “In 2015, the nation will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. And in 2018, New Orleans’ tricentenary will focus not only on the founding of New Orleans but also its successful rebirth 300 years later.

“You see, the effort to rebuild and recover has been not just an engineering feat to save a city, an entire culture has been at stake. We have our own cuisine, music, architecture, funeral traditions, literature and cultural structure. And as of late, it looks like it will be preserved. More restaurants are in operation than before the hurricane. … As challenging a decade as the 2000s were for New Orleans, the 2010s may prove to be the brightest time in the city’s nearly 300-year history.

“The momentum is building. New Orleans is not just coming back and not just on its way back. New Orleans is storming back.”

The development of the medical corridor, officially known as BioDistrict New Orleans, is among the largest current construction projects in the world. The 1,500-acre district in downtown and Mid-City neighborhoods is expected to create up to 22,000 jobs during the next decade.

The developments in the corridor include:

— The Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Last month, contractors began unloading sand at the construction site to push water out of the ground. That’s the last major step before construction crews start driving piles and putting up buildings. The $995 million project will create 1,100 jobs.

— The University Medical Center. State lawmakers approved funding for the $1.09 billion project in September. The medical center will cover 34 acres and will have the only Level 1 trauma center in south Louisiana. It’s expected to create or save 5,280 jobs during its first five years.

— The Louisiana Cancer Research Center. The 10-story facility is being developed at a cost of $90 million by a consortium that includes the LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane University, Xavier University and Ochsner Health System.

— The New Orleans BioInnovation Center. Completed last June, the $47 million structure houses biotech and life sciences entrepreneurs while supporting research at four area universities. At full capacity, up to 80 start-up companies will call the center home.

Other developments are taking place down the street near the Superdome, as those who attended the recent Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena can tell you.

Last week, the New Orleans Hornets and the state of Louisiana reached an agreement that will keep the NBA club in the New Orleans Arena through 2024 and pump almost $50 million in improvements into the facility. The agreement includes a provision for the NBA to award New Orleans an NBA All-Star Game.

Next door at the Superdome, more than $336 million has been spent since 2006. From January through June of last year, an $85 million renovation expanded the concourse, added restrooms and concession areas, provided two premium clubs at field level for big spenders, added high-speed elevators and put in an additional 3,100 seats.

An outdoor entertainment area known as Champions Square has been built adjacent to the Superdome. Brick pavers, stages, trees and benches have been installed to create a place for concerts, corporate parties and other special events.

The owner of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Benson (at least the NFL can’t suspend an owner), bought the old Dominion Tower in 2009 and has transformed it into the gleaming Benson Tower. Ochsner Health System is relocating 750 employees to the top four floors of the 26-story building, meaning it’s now more than 90 percent leased.

Also in the neighborhood, the Hyatt Regency became the last major New Orleans hotel to reopen last October. It now serves as an anchor for Champions Square and the downtown sports district. The Hyatt Regency renovation cost $275 million.

The reopening of the Hyatt Regency with its 1,193 guest rooms brought the city’s hotel room inventory to almost 36,500 rooms. Prior to Katrina, the city had 39,525 hotel rooms.

Well-known chef John Besh has opened a restaurant named Borgne in the hotel, and it’s receiving rave reviews. If you want a touch of Arkansas, the hotel even has a Whole Hog Cafe.

From the medical corridor to the sports district, there’s construction and progress.

“We’re not going to be like Atlanta or Houston,” says Michael Hecht, the president of the business development group Greater New Orleans Inc. “But in the long run that’s a competitive advantage.”

McCollam writes in the Journal: “In its focus on building a creative economy, New Orleans sees its competition not in buttoned-down regional rivals but in San Francisco, Austin, Boston — other offbeat cities focusing more on home-grown job creation than on Fortune 500 benefactors.”

For once, I find myself in agreement with James Carville. New Orleans is storming back.

Arkansas’ barbecue mecca

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

What town has more good barbecue restaurants than any other place in the state?

I would say Blytheville.

For quality smoked pork per capita, the Mississippi County city is this state’s barbecue mecca.

Arkansas’ cotton capital has suffered economically with the outmigration of sharecroppers and the closure of Eaker Air Force Base, but barbecue restaurants continue to proliferate.

It’s a tradition in Blytheville.

In a history of barbecue in the Mid-South, food historian Robert Moss of Charleston, S.C., writes: “In Blytheville, Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923, later moving the restaurant to a rock building, and finally to Sixth Street in the 1950s. … It operated as a drive-in with curb service during the 1950s and 1960s but later scaled back to just a regular family-style restaurant.”

A visit to Blytheville requires a stop at the Dixie Pig, which is a direct descendant of that log cabin where the Halsell family began serving food in 1923. The Dixie Pig has hundreds of loyal patrons who drive in from all over northeast Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel and Memphis. It’s also a regular stop for people traveling up and down Interstate 55.

Here’s how the Arkansas Times describes it: “The Dixie Pig has been selling barbecue in Blytheville for almost 90 years, and in that time it has come close to perfecting the chopped pork sandwich. They call it the ‘pig sandwich’ — also available the ‘large pig’ — and serve it wrapped in wax paper, sans plate, with chopped cabbage and a heap of dry, hickory-smoked chopped pork inside a thin bun.

“The sauce, a fiery, thin blend of pepper and vinegar, is in repurposed ketchup bottles on the table. Don’t miss the holes punched in the cap and twist it off for a pour. The sauce spills out quickly and is best when used in moderation. Fries and onion rings are both homemade and some of the best we’ve ever had, particularly the fries, which tasted double fried.”

Lindsey Millar of the Times writes that in the “interminable drive I’m regularly forced to make up I-55 to visit the in-laws, one stop — geographically positioned just far enough away that, if we leave around 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., we hit right when my belly is calling for lunch — makes the trip almost bearable.”

That stop is the Dixie Pig.

“I’ll never drive through Blytheville without stopping again,” Millar writes.

In 2009, a book was published with this intriguing title: “America’s Best BBQ: 100 Recipes from America’s Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses and Restaurants.”

One of the co-authors of that book, Paul Kirk from the Kansas City area, declared that the Dixie Pig has the best barbecue in the country.

That’s right, in the country.

Jennifer Biggs, who writes about food for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis, headed to the Dixie Pig soon after the book was released. She said she had been told to order the ‘pig salad” with blue cheese dressing.

Here’s part of what she wrote: “I ended up buying a container of the dressing and a container of the hot vinegar sauce to bring home. Folks in Blytheville buy the dressing, which is made in-house and includes chopped green olives, to serve at parties as a dip.

“The salad is simple: Iceberg lettuce, a wedge or two of tomato, dressing on the side. First I doused the chopped meat — smoky, tender, with a few bits of bark — with the hot vinegar sauce and poured on a little blue cheese. Then a lot. Spicy. Tangy. Smoky. Creamy. And all on top of crisp lettuce (don’t even think about arugula or baby mesclun here; iceberg is the perfect foil). That was one fine salad.

“The ‘pig sandwich’ was a bit perplexing, though. The meat, again, was fine. Chopped (I was later told I could have had it sliced, which I would have preferred), sufficiently smoky and with a few bits of bark. It was the slaw that surprised me.

“In Memphis, we can passionately discuss the merits of first, whether to put slaw on your sandwich and second, the merits of a mayo-based slaw vs. one of mustard or vinegar. At the Dixie Pig, that’s no issue. It was just cabbage, dressed with just a smidge of vinegar. And I do mean a smidge; it wasn’t even wet. Adding the hot vinegar sauce greatly improved it.

“The onion rings were about as good as they come, though. Freshly cut, battered and fried in-house, they come to the table crisp and hot. The batter is light without being crumbly — there’s probably a little bit of egg in it — and the onions are sliced medium to thin. I couldn’t resist hitting a few of them with a dash of the vinegar sauce, and I do recommend the combination.”

Biggs also enjoyed the customers in the restaurant.

She wrote: “A table of older men were out to solve the problems of the world, and I’ve always been a sucker for these coffee klatches of ‘wrinkled roosters,’ which is what I call them because the first men’s coffee group I wrote about was officially named The Wrinkled Roosters and met every morning at a now-closed restaurant in Hernando, Miss. … There’s a camaraderie you generally find only in institutions, which is what the Dixie Pig is.”

She quoted Dr. Charles E. Campbell, who was stopping in for a cup of coffee while she was there, as saying: “I can’t make it through a week without a ‘pig sandwich.’ I think it’s the best barbecue you can get anywhere.”

Obviously, Paul Kirk agrees.

The thing about Blytheville, however, is that there are other choices. A lot of choices, in fact.

There are two locations of Penn’s Barbeque, operated independently by brothers. Unfortunately, it appears the original location is about to be replaced by a Dollar General store.

My chief Blytheville barbecue correspondent thinks the best barbecue in town can be found at Benny Bob’s on East Main Street.

Others swear by the pork sandwich at the Kream Kastle on North Division Street, a Blytheville institution that serves a variety of other dishes.

“I grew up in Blytheville, and when I return a barbecue sandwich topped with slaw is always satisfying,” one Little Rock resident says while extolling the virtues of the Kream Kastle. “Solid onion rings as well. Probably your best bet in Blytheville.”

There’s also Yank’s Famous Barbeque on East Main Street and Johnny’s BBQ on South Lake Street.

I’m even told of a man who split from Yank’s and now sells barbecue off a grill behind a barber shop. Now that’s a true Delta experience. I need to give it a try. I think this place is known as Benny’s (not to be confused with Benny Bob’s).

“Yes, it’s confusing,” my correspondent admits. “We have a whole bunch of barbecue for a town this size.”

You’re telling me!

Finally, I want to try this barbecue location as described by the chief correspondent: “There’s a place here that may have some of the best barbecued pork I’ve ever tasted. It’s located in a travel trailer parked in front of Hays Supermarket. I don’t think the stand has an official name. He has been there for a decade or so, and the locals just refer to it as Old Hays Barbecue.”

Though Blytheville’s population has dropped from 20,798 in the 1960 census to 15,620 in the 2010 census, the town is still filled with fascinating places thanks to its rich history.

“Mississippi County has long held its place as the No. 1 cotton-producing county in Arkansas, and Blytheville sits near 10 cotton gins,” Rigel Keffer writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “One of the largest cotton gins in North America lies on Blytheville’s western edge.

“The Ritz, Blytheville’s civic center since 1981, originated in the early 1900s and has seen several owners, fires, name changes, expansions and renovations throughout its decades on Main Street. A popular stop for famous vaudeville performers traveling from Memphis to St. Louis in the early 20th century, the Ritz later became one of the first theaters in Arkansas to present talking pictures. The Ritz was fully renovated in 1950-51 and hosted a television lounge where many Blytheville residents got their first glimpse of the new medium.

“Blytheville lies along Highway 61 of blues music fame. Generations of blues musicians passed through Blytheville as they traveled from Memphis north toward St. Louis and Chicago. The 1932 Greyhound bus station at 109 North Fifth St. is one of the few surviving art deco Greyhound bus stations in the United States.”

I mentioned the barbecue trailer in front of Hays Supermarket. The store has its own colorful history. Russell Hays and his wife Mae Hays opened the store on Jan. 1, 1935.

The company website states: “When employees or others speak of the big store, the flagship store is the one they are referring to, even though it has not been the biggest for many years. Town and country folks from all walks of life filled the aisles, and on Saturdays it was a meeting place for the country people.

“What began as a general mercantile store has evolved into a full self-service supermarket. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ladies’ ready-to-wear was as fine a selection as you could find in a town this size. There were many fashion shows held in the store. One disgruntled competitor told a salesman once, ‘At Hays, you’re likely to find a smoked ham and silk dress hanging on the same rack.'”

A Hays store on the square in nearby Hayti, Mo., opened in 1948. A store was purchased in Caruthersville, Mo., in 1973. There were additions in Wynne in 1977 and West Helena in 1981. A second Wynne store was added in 1986, and a second Blytheville location was added in 1987.

Five more stores were purchased in 2001 — two in Jonesboro, two in Paragould and one in Walnut Ridge.

I need to plan a couple of days in Blytheville soon, eating my way across the city.

Hot Springs: Birthplace of baseball spring training

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Baseball spring training is drawing thousands of people this week to Florida for Grapefruit League games and to Arizona for Cactus League games.

Let this fact sink in: It really started in Hot Springs.

Finally, the folks in the Spa City are capitalizing on that heritage with what’s being called the Historical Baseball Trail.

“What began as our curiosity about why there are so many photos of Babe Ruth at various locations in Hot Springs wound up unearthing a treasure trove of historic associations between the world’s most famous baseball players and Hot Springs,” says Steve Arrison, the always innovative head of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Things really got rolling in the spring of 2011 when we were able to document that Ruth hit the first 500-foot-plus home run while playing spring baseball at Whittington Park.

“Bill Jenkinson, one of the preeminent baseball historians in the world, came to Hot Springs and helped us authenticate Babe’s legendary 573-foot shot that zoomed over Whittington Park’s fence, across Whittington Avenue and into the Arkansas Alligator farm.”

I can just picture the alligators inspecting that baseball.

My friend Mike Dugan of Hot Springs — who hails from an old Garland County family with a rich Irish-American history of operating taverns and other establishments — has studied the city’s baseball heritage for years. He has been joined by Mark Blaeuer of Hot Springs, Don Duren of Texas (who has written well-researched books on Hot Springs baseball), Tim Reid of Florida and others in unearthing that history.

A.G. Spalding and Cap Anson brought the Chicago White Stockings (they eventually became the Cubs) to Hot Springs to train in 1886. The team used a field on Ouachita Avenue behind the current site of the Garland County Courthouse.

On March 28, 1887, Anson hit three home runs against a team from Des Moines.

The baseball historians were able to document more than 300 players, managers, owners and baseball writers who spent time in the city.

“We need to let Americans know about the people, places and events that made Hot Springs a key element in the growth of the nation’s pastime,” Arrison says. “What we decided to do was gather as many names as could be historically authenticated and try to locate the places where these legends played or relaxed in Hot Springs.”

The best spot to start down the trail is the Hill Wheatley Plaza downtown. Plaques will be placed across the city. There also will be a digital tour allowing people to use their smartphones for additional information.

Arrison believes that 134 of the 295 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame spent time in Hot Springs.

As far back as 1993, Little Rock native Jay Jennings was chronicling the history of baseball there. He wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled “When Baseball Sprang for Hot Springs.”

“Hot Springs has drawn media attention as the boyhood home of President Bill Clinton, but few people know that it also played a crucial role in the early years of baseball,” Jennings wrote. “It was the place where spring training came of age. From 1886 to the 1920s, Hot Springs was baseball’s most popular preseason training spot.

“Though National Association teams began traveling south as early as 1869 when the New York Mutuals visited New Orleans to play exhibition games, manager Cap Anson is widely credited with creating the first organized spring training camp, for his 1886 Chicago White Stockings, in Hot Springs.

“By 1890 players for Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Cleveland and other teams were in Hot Springs in such numbers that The Sporting News called it ‘the Mecca of professional baseball players.’ Anson, Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, Rogers Horsby, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Dizzy Dean and Cy Young all worked out there.”

Jennings, who is living back in Arkansas these days while turning out quality books and articles, helped educate a national audience on the prominence of Hot Springs in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The choice of site was not so odd as it may seem now,” he wrote. “In the last two decades of the 19th century, Hot Springs was a celebrated spa. Though its population was only about 10,000, there were always between 3,000 and 6,000 tourists in town. The town’s popularity stemmed, as you might guess, from its waters. Hydropathy — ‘the water cure’ — was in its heyday, and with pure mineral water bubbling up from the earth at 143 degrees and huge bathhouses to serve its visitors, Hot Springs promoted itself as America’s Baden-Baden, after the famous German spa. To help bathers fill leisure time between their therapeutic dips, entrepreneurs built theaters and casinos. And they staged sporting events.

“To Anson in the late 1880s, the site seemed ideal. Accommodations were plentiful and, for the most part, plush, and he could house his White Stockings at the Plateau Hotel for less than $20 a week per room.”

Jennings noted that the surrounding Ouachita Mountains “proved challenging for the long runs on which he liked to lead his players. Afterward they could relieve any aches and pains — or sweat off winter weight — by ‘boiling out’ in one of the 17 bathhouses in town. The cost of a regular three-week series of 21 baths was only $3.

“After first training in Hot Springs in 1886, the White Stockings went on to win the National League championship. They returned to the Valley of the Vapors in 1887, and the town gave them special considerations: The mule-drawn street trolley line was extended to the site of the ballpark, and a canopy was constructed over the grandstand to give spectators some shade. At the Plateau Hotel, according to The Sporting News, ‘genial Col. Rugg,’ the hotel’s manager, ‘placed at their disposal the billiard hall and the ladies’ library.”’

Things had really taken off by the early 1900s. The Red Sox signed a five-year lease for Majestic Park in 1909 and agreed a year later to share Majestic with the Cincinnati Reds.

Pittsburgh signed a 10-year lease on Whittington Park and agreed to share it with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Jennings wrote: “Then in 1913 and ’14, … other factors conspired to further diminish the allure of spring training in Hot Springs: a major fire, the rising popularity of Florida as a training area and Hot Springs’ own obliging personality.”

A fire in September 1913 destroyed 50 blocks and almost 1,000 buildings.

In his book “The American Spa,” Dee Brown wrote: “Many regular visitors, hearing of the disaster, stayed away for one or two seasons and few new people came.”

A Sporting Life headline told of “red lights and wide open policy” in Hot Springs. Owners and managers decided they would rather have their players in places with fewer distractions.

Jennings said that choosing Hot Springs as a spring training site in those days was like “setting up camp in Las Vegas today.”

He ended the article this way: “This faded history deserves to be remembered for the images it evokes: an irascible Cap Anson arguing over gate receipts; an aging Walter Johnson scaling a hill to play catch; Babe Ruth swaddled in towels on a bathhouse bench. When baseball left Hot Springs, it gained a more temperate climate and smoother fields, but it left behind a glamorous and exciting past.”

Now a series of 26 markers and the latest digital technology will allow visitors to Hot Springs to relive those days.

The 26 cast aluminum plaques are spread across the city: The location where Ruth hit that long home run, the site of the hotel where Ruth flipped a coin with his manager to determine his salary for the next year and much more.

In addition to the Hill Wheatley Plaza (where brochures about the trail will be available), designated entry points to the trail will be Oaklawn and Whittington Park.

The city’s importance to Negro League baseball also will be celebrated.

“Although there were still major leaguers to be found there throughout the ’20s, the influx of players to Hot Springs eventually slowed to a trickle, and the big league game quietly faded away,” Jennings wrote back in 1993. “The town’s memory of its baseball heritage faded too.”

Hot Springs will now properly celebrate that part of its colorful past.

Revitalizing downtown Hot Springs

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

I barely had finished writing a blog post last week on a walk I took in downtown Hot Springs when the announcement was made: The Superior Bathhouse will be transformed into a brewery.

The Superior, which opened in 1916, is the smallest of the eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row and is the closest bathhouse to the Arlington Hotel. The Superior has been empty since 1983.

A brewer named Rose Schweikhart Cranson hopes to turn the Hot Springs mineral water into craft beers, spirits and nonalcoholic drinks such as root beer.

“That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to use the bathhouse, because I would have access to the water,” she said last week.

Built by L.C. Young and Robert Proctor, the Superior has 11,000 square feet and cost $68,000 to construct. The National Park Service recently renovated the building, including a new ramp to make the entrance handicapped accessible.

Schweikhart Cranson said she and her husband have been testing the waters since they moved to Hot Springs from Springfield, Ill., last year.

“We’ll choose beer styles that will work with the water with minimal tinkering,” she said. “It’s favorable for making beer.”

Josie Fernandez, the Hot Springs National Park superintendent, said she hopes to have negotiations completed by the end of the year.

At the same time, it was announced that a nonprofit organization known as the Muses Creative Artistry Project wants to move forward with using the back and the upstairs of the Hale Bathhouse. The Muses began operating a cafe and bookstore in the Hale lobby last year.

Built in 1892, the Hale has 12,000 square feet on two main floors. In 1917, one of the hot springs was captured in a tiled enclosure in the hotel’s basement. That feature is still in place. The building was renovated in 1939 in the Mission Revival style, and the red brick was covered in stucco.

Named for early bathhouse owner John Hale, it was at least the fourth bathhouse to use the Hale name. The Hale, which closed on Halloween Day 1978, is the oldest visible structure on Bathhouse Row.

The National Park Service has spent more than $1.5 million in recent years to preserve the building, including updating the heating and air conditioning system.

The Muses — which describes itself as being “dedicated to preserving classical art and music through performance, education, wellness and music therapy” — was founded five years ago by Deleen Davidson.

The organization wants to include in the Hale two performing arts spaces; studios for the study of music, art and dance; meeting spaces; an artist-in-residence apartment; and a wellness room for guests to experience the baths.

If plans for the Superior and the Hale move forward, the Maurice will be the only one of the eight bathhouses that’s empty.

That represents tremendous progress in downtown Hot Springs. I agree with the world-class Little Rock architect Reese Rowland, who has described Bathhouse Row as one of the great stretches of urban street in America.

But, as noted in last week’s post, there’s so much more that needs to be done to return downtown Hot Springs to its rightful place as one of the region’s top attractions — the Saratoga of the South, if you will.

Thanks to longtime friend Kay Brockwell, the director of business retention and recruitment for the Garland County Economic Development Corp., for forwarding the city’s strategic plan for economic development, which was completed last September.

That effort was led by TIP Strategies out of Austin, Texas. When I was with the Delta Regional Authority, I worked closely with Jon Roberts of TIP in developing a strategic plan for the Delta. I can assure you that Roberts does first-class work. I was delighted to see that he made downtown redevelopment the major part of his strategy for the Hot Springs area.

He notes the many advantages Hot Springs possessess — a national park, the lakes, Oaklawn Park, the convention center and Summit Arena.

“These advantages, however, have bred a certain complacency,” Roberts writes. “The risk is increasingly one in which ‘good is good enough.’ This viewpoint threatens to compromise the city and the region. It would perhaps be defensible if the region really were doing well.

“In fact, there are dire warning signals. Population growth has become stagnant. The tax base is fragile. Bold initiatives, from education to redevelopment, have received only tepid support. Further, many of the greatest assets of the community are increasingly in danger of decline. These extend from the business base to hotels and even retail trade.

“It is clear that a concerted effort is called for, not only because there are opportunities but because inaction carries serious consequences. It would be an overstatement to say that this is a time of crisis. But it is not overreaching to suggest that Hot Springs cannot afford to squander many more opportunities.”

The strategic plan describes the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown Hot Springs as the “greatest opportunity for enhancing economic vitality in Garland County.”

Roberts writes: “Across the country, cities both small and large have rediscovered the importance of their downtowns, and examples of revitalized city centers are abundant. America’s renewed interest in downtowns was rooted in the historic preservation movement of the 1970s.

“Economic developers eventually learned to value vibrancy in the urban core for a more practical reason: a healthy downtown makes a city more competitive in the pursuit of new businesses. This is because prospects often see the state of a downtown as a reflection of whether a community values investment and excellence. Moreover, companies realize that in the competition for talent, a community that offers a higher quality of life and stronger sense of place finds it easier to recruit and retain the workers it needs to remain successful.”

Roberts has reached the crux of the issue: Revitalizing downtown Hot Springs is about more than attracting tourists. It’s also about attracting young, highly educated, creative people to live in the city.

Now, the bad news.

Roberts continues: “Unfortunately, few recent efforts toward downtown revitalization and redevelopment in Hot Springs are apparent.”

He’s right. Rather than focusing on the welcome leases at the bathhouses and the presence of art galleries downtown, too many visitors have their memories of Hot Springs sullied by dated, musty hotel rooms and huge buildings such as the Majestic and Medical Arts that stand empty.

“Through most of its history, downtown was a major destination for tourism and economic activity within Hot Springs,” the strategic plan states. “Its proximity to Hot Springs National Park and the presence of Bathhouse Row drew visitors to the region for more than a century.

“But downtown Hot Springs has lost much of its luster. Historic structures are in need of investment, ground-floor retail space is underutilized and the upper stories of most buildings remain vacant. The lack of new investment should be a great concern to Hot Springs’ leaders and citizens. One serious risk is that these buildings could fall into disrepair and no longer be salvageable. If this were to occur, Hot Springs would undoubtedly see its competitive position as a tourism destination erode. It is extremely important that the community no longer allow the status quo to continue. Supporting revitalization of downtown Hot Springs — as both a tourism destination and a catalyst for economic activity — will require a committed, sustained and bold approach.”

Does the leadership of Hot Springs have the stomach for such a committed, sustained and bold approach?

That’s a question I can’t answer.

With the economy on the mend, can the city now attract outside investors to sink capital into projects downtown?

The risks are there, but given Hot Springs’ long history as a magnet for visitors, I think the upside is tremendous for those willing to invest in hotels, condominiums, apartments and upscale retail establishments.

Heritage tourism is hot, and Hot Springs is positioned to attract well-heeled visitors if the model is Saratoga rather than Branson.

One thing Roberts calls for is improving the now tacky Central Avenue corridor from Oaklawn to downtown.

“While much of Hot Springs’ history and image is inextricably linked to Bathhouse Row, other destinations appear to have surpassed the urban core as tourism draws,” he writes. “For example, Oaklawn now brings approximately 1.6 million tourists to Hot Springs annually, and Lake Hamilton and Lake Ouachita are also major attractions.

“Few benefits of tourism spending, however, can be seen in downtown Hot Springs. At the same time, few amenities (such as retail, restaurants and hotels) that serve visitors are apparent within the area surrounding Oaklawn. This strategy proposes linking the area’s various attractions to create a mutually supportive network and complete visitor experience. … This corridor should be viewed as the primary linkage between Hot Springs’ two premier urban attractions: Bathhouse Row and Oaklawn. It should serve as the focal point for robust economic activity, creating a dynamic environment for small businesses and visitors alike.”

At least part of the business leadership now realizes that downtown is the key to moving Hot Springs forward. I consider this a statewide economic development priority, not just a Hot Springs priority.

I’ll be back there Saturday, thinking about what once was and dreaming about what someday might be.

A Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Q

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

The James Beard Awards are to the food industry what the Pulitzer Prizes are to journalism, the Academy Awards are to the film industry, the Emmy Awards are to television, the Tony Awards are to the theater and the Grammy Awards are to music.

That brings us to a nondescript place in a residential area at 219 W. Louisiana St. in the Arkansas Delta town of Marianna.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, owned by James and Betty Jones, has been selected by the James Beard Foundation of New York as one of five America’s Classics Award honorees for 2012.

Foodies nationwide can tell you that this is big.

Really big.

Most Arkansans have never heard of the restaurant, but they’ll know about it now.

The America’s Classics Award is given to restaurants with “timeless appeal that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”

The Jones family will be honored Monday, May 7, when the annual awards dinner is held at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York.

“Every year, the presentation of our five America’s Classics Awards are favorite moments at our ceremony,” says Susan Ungaro, the James Beard Foundation president. “Attendees at our awards love meeting these folks and hearing their stories because they represent the diverse heritage, heart and community of our country’s national cuisine. James Beard would have loved visiting them all.”

Beard, who died in 1985, was a cookbook author and teacher who educated generations of chefs and other foodies. A Portland native, Beard published the first of his 20 books in 1940.

Julia Child once said of Beard: “Through the years, he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country but the dean of American cuisine.”

He established the James Beard Cooking School in 1955 and for the next three decades taught men and women how to cook.

The James Beard Foundation website describes him as a “tireless traveler, bringing his message of good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients, to a country just becoming aware of its own culinary heritage.”

I have no doubt that Mr. Beard would have enjoyed visiting Jones Bar-B-Q Diner.

Here’s how the Beard Foundation describes the place: “Some incarnation of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been open since at least the 1910s. Walter Jones was the founder and first pitmaster. He lived in a dogtrot house perched nearby. From the back porch, he served barbecue on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Hubert Jones, the son of Walter Jones and the father of present-day proprietor James Jones, recalled the family’s initial barbecue setup as a ‘hole in the ground, some iron pipes and a piece of fence wire, and two pieces of tin.’

“Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, one of the oldest African-American-owned restaurants in America, remains true to those roots. James Jones, the grandson of Walter Jones, tends the pits. His cooking apparatus is still elemental. And the pork shoulder, hacked into savory bits and served on white bread with a spritz of vinegary sauce, is as smoky as ever.”

Here’s the rest of the story of a James Beard Award coming to Marianna: Several years ago, when I became active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, I got to know John T. Edge, the alliance director and nationally known food writer who’s based on the Ole Miss campus. I urged John T. to spend more time on the west side of the Mississippi River. I’ve long considered the barbecue culture of the Arkansas Delta to be far superior to that of the Mississippi Delta, and I told him that.

Jones Bar-B-Q was among the places that I, along with other Arkansans, urged John T. to try.

The Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Q never would have happened without the persistence of John T. Edge.

He drove over from Oxford to visit the restaurant and discovered that James Jones is a man of few words. John T. came back again and again, finally wearing down Mr. Jones enough that he had the material for an Oxford American article titled “In Through the Back Door.”

The article itself was nominated for a Beard Award.

Here’s how it started: “A white man clutching a brown paper bag stands in the dirt-and-gravel lot that fronts Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in the Arkansas Delta town of Marianna. Grease splotches the bag, a stain that envelops the bottom and flares up the sides.

“The man appears to be 60, maybe 70. His face is wide and jowly. His hair is thin and comb-raked. He wears brown pants, a white shirt and a baby blue windbreaker. He could have left a couple of minutes ago, could have jumped in his pickup and driven away, eating a barbecue sandwich from a foil wrapper, fighting the collapse of the two slices of white bread that contain, for the moment, a mound of hickoried and sauced ham and shoulder.

“But the man lingers. The grease spreads.

“He stares across the neighborhood. At rusted-out and busted-up trailer homes. At carbon-smudged chimneys that stand where clapboard bungalows once stood. At bottle-strewn ditches, flush with crabgrass and bull thistle.

“The man is no barbecue pilgrim, questing for lost tribes and forgotten temples in this once-prosperous cotton kingdom. He’s likely a native.”

And here’s how the Oxford American story ends: “And that is why, not 30 minutes after an old white man stood in the parking lot, bag in hand, he was replaced by a younger white man, bearing his own burden, gripping his own bag, a similar stigmata of grease defining the barbecue within. That man, I might as well tell you, looked a lot like me.”

You can find John T.’s story reprinted in a wonderful collection titled “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture & Barbecue in the Mid-South.”

The collection, which also contains a piece by Justin Nolan of El Dorado on the barbecue culture of south Arkansas and north Louisiana, was published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press.

John T. also wrote about Jones Bar-B-Q in a story in Saveur. James Jones told him: “My father would sell the meat in town at this place they had. They called it the Hole in the Wall. That’s what it was. Just a window in a wall where they sold meat from a washtub.”

John T. wrote: “Jones’ story is similar to many I’ve heard from pitmasters around the South: For their ancestors, barbecue was an opportunity — a way to leverage equity and muscle to build successful businesses. By the late 1930s, as new roads stretched across the South and community barbecue traditions begat city commerce, young entrepreneurs began selling sandwiches from roadside shebangs. And in a leap that would give a lexicographer whiplash, a vocation that had been built largely on the labor of enslaved African-Americans began referring to its best practitioners as pitmasters. … Race has always been a subtext of barbecue. In much of the South, blacks traditionally did the pit-cooking while whites supervised.”

Here’s a tip if you’re planning a pilgrimage to Marianna to get a sandwich: Get there early.

“Mr. Jones is there early in the mornings and leaves early in the afternoon,” says Kim Williams, a travel writer for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “If you want barbecue, you get it in the morning.”

Mr. Jones usually arrives by 7:30 a.m. each Monday through Saturday. Kim lists the closing time as 2 p.m., but if he runs out of barbecue, he’s gone much earlier. I’ve arrived at the noon hour and found the place locked tight.

Remember, no buns. Just white bread. Without or without slaw. No sides.

“I grew up on Jones,” Kim says. “I can only eat barbecue on white bread.”

A lot of people buy Mr. Jones’ barbecue by the pound.

“I actually prefer it without bread,” Kim says. “The slaw, which is basically the only slaw I will eat, is mustard based, I guess, because it’s yellow. The sauce is vinegar based and relatively thin. I’m craving it now. It’s only four blocks from my house.”

A James Beard Award for Jones Bar-B-Diner? How about that!

It’s indeed an American classic.

Coach Willie Tate: The loss of a mentor

Friday, March 9th, 2012

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you had a teacher who inspired you to be all you could be, who pushed you further than you thought you could go.

For a lot of boys, that person was a coach rather than a classroom teacher.

For a lot of boys in the South, that person was, to be even more specific, a football coach.

For me, that person was Coach Willie Tate of Arkadelphia.

Coach Tate died Thursday at the all-too-young age of 69 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s hard to believe he was only 17 years older. When I was a teenage boy, he might as well have been 40 years older.

You see, he was a giant of my youth, a man a whole town could look up to.

Raised in a large family in the small community of Gum Springs in Clark County, Willie Tate attended college at Arkansas AM&N (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and became a star football player.

He began his coaching career at Hope, moving later to Arkadelphia where he would spend the rest of his career, coaching first at Goza Junior High School, later at Arkadelphia High School and finally at Henderson State University.

I was lucky that Coach Tate followed us from junior high to high school, meaning I had him for four of my final five years of football. He was my head football coach in the eighth and the ninth grades.

After a 10th-grade season without him, when I was the backup center on the Arkadelphia High School team, Coach Tate moved up to the high school level as the Badger offensive line coach. I was the starting center as a junior, and he was my position coach.

My friends will tell you that all these years later, I’m constantly quoting Willie Tate.

He had that kind of effect on me.

He would warn us about “season women,” those girls who would date you during the fall if you were a football player but then drop you for a basketball player in the winter.

He would preach self-esteem and then tell us: “If you ever read that Willie Tate committed suicide, you better call the police. Somebody has murdered me and made it appear to be a suicide. I would never do that because I love Willie Tate.”

He would say, “Let me show you how to block” or “let me show you how to use a forearm,” and we would all back up. Yes, we were in full pads. Yes, he was in coaching clothes. But no one wanted to take on Coach Tate and have his massive forearm crush into the chest. This was a gifted athlete who had earned All-SWAC honors in both football and baseball at AM&N.

We loved the man, just as much as we feared him when we were on the field. Arkadelphia had experienced severe racial problems in the spring of 1972. By the fall of 1973, I was playing for Willie Tate.

He was black. I was white. It sounds trite, but color didn’t matter to any of us on that football field. He convinced us we were all Goza Junior High Beaver red and white and later Arkadelphia High School Badger red and blue.

He told us of his freshman season at AM&N when he separated a shoulder during a game, only to have the team doctor pop it into place on the sideline and tell him to get back on the field.

In excruciating pain, he decided the next morning to take advantage of the one pay phone in his dorm on the Pine Bluff campus and call his father back in Gum Springs.

“I’m coming home,” he said.

His father, with a family to feed and in need of labor on the farm, was happy to have the extra help. He replied, “Good. I’ll have the sack out for cotton picking and the billet truck filled up.”

Willie Tate decided that he wasn’t in that much pain after all. Playing football, even with a separated shoulder, beat picking cotton and working in the billet woods. He stayed in college and graduated.

I’ve written before on the Southern Fried blog about that special season of 1976, when the Badgers advanced to the state championship game, only to have the title denied inches away from victory by what my teammates and I always will believe to have been a series of bad calls.

As a junior starter on a team filled with seniors, I was determined not to disappoint Coach Tate. If you missed an assignment or happened to be called for holding, you would go 20 yards out of your way when coming off the field to avoid running directly by Coach Tate.

He wouldn’t scream at you when you came off the field following the punt or the turnover. Instead, he would put his hands on his hips and give you a stare that burned all the way through you.

It has been more than 35 years, but I can still picture that sideline stare in my mind as vividly as if it had occurred today.

Coach Tate would spend weekends in the fall watching the film of Friday’s game and grading each of his linemen. He would hand out his grades and individual comments on Monday. A positive word from Coach Tate on those sheets was enough to put an extra bounce in your step during the Monday afternoon practice.

The humidity always seemed to hang heavier than anywhere around that old practice field on Caddo Street. As the sweat poured out of us, Coach Tate would laugh and sing about “Blue Monday.”

Soon enough, though, it would be Friday night and the Badgers of 1976 would be on their way to another victory with Vernon Hutchins as the head coach and Willie Tate making sure his offensive linemen were blocking for star running back Trent Bryant.

In the state semifinal game, we took on an incredibly talented Cabot team at War Memorial Stadium. I had upper body strength in those days (I loved the bench press) and didn’t mind blocking a big noseguard. I could handle those guys. The small, quick opponents shooting gaps were the ones who bothered me.

Cabot, as it turned out, had the quickest noseguard I had ever come up against.

At halftime, as I sat in a stall in our dressing room at War Memorial Stadium, Coach Tate walked over to me and said: “If you will block your man, we will be in the state championship game.”

The second half was better than the first. We recovered a fumbled punt, drove the ball into the end zone and advanced to the title game.

The next week, I was virtually inconsolable in our Caddo Street dressing room following the battle against Mena that had occurred down the street at Henderson’s Haygood Stadium.

I was the deep snapper in addition to being the regular center. I had made a bad snap on a punt. The playing conditions on that muddy field were beyond bad, but I was blaming myself for the loss. More than anything, I believed I had let Coach Tate down.

I had my face buried in my hands when I felt that strong arm reach around me and give me a hug. It was Coach Tate. He whispered in my ear that it would be OK. He told me to take my muddy uniform off and go shower.

With the tears still coming down my cheeks, I said, “Yes sir.”

I stood up, slowly pulled off my uniform and headed to the shower. I still have the muddy mouthpiece from that game.

We lost a number of seniors to graduation. Heading into my senior season, the Arkansas Gazette featured in a Sunday edition one player from each classification. For some reason, I was the player featured from what was then Class AAA in a story by Wadie Moore Jr. I desperately wanted to live up to the hype.

Our quarterback was hurt early in the season, and the fall of 1977 was a disappointment. Yet the chance to have another practice under the guidance of Coach Tate and play another game for him kept me going.

By my freshman year at Ouachita, I was the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald and the sports director of radio stations KVRC-KDEL, covering the Badgers on a daily basis and still getting to interact with Coach Tate.

Coach Hutchins resigned at the end of the 1978 season — my first as the Badger play-by-play man — and a young guy out of UCA named John Outlaw was hired. He brought with him as defensive coordinator another young coach, Forrest City native John Thompson (now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas State under Gus Malzahn). Wisely, Outlaw decided to leave Willie Tate on the staff.

The Badgers won the state championship that first season under Outlaw in 1979 and won it again in 1987, making it to the playoffs in eight of Outlaw’s nine years as head coach. Coach Tate was with him all the way.

I taped interviews with the coaches each Thursday during football season for use on our Friday night broadcasts. Coach Tate didn’t like being interviewed and often began to stutter before crying out, “Cut! Cut!”

Coach Outlaw and Coach Thompson laughed uncontrollably in the background. Those were fun times.

In addition to being a member of the football staff, Coach Tate was the head track coach, winning three District 7AAA championships and finishing second in the Class AAA state meet eight times (he had the misfortune of coming up against the Bobby Richardson track and field dynasty at Crossett).

Coach Tate moved to Henderson as a football assistant under Coach Ken Turner in 1990. He was part of the Reddie football staff until 1999 and served as the head golf coach from 1995 until his retirement in May 2006.

Coach Tate was good at every sport he tried. He was a great softball player in the summers (while also working as a ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at DeGray Lake) and a quality golfer.

In 2010, Arkadelphia High School instituted the Willie Tate Heart of the Badger Award for the student who best exemplifies what it means to play football at the school. They couldn’t have chosen a better person to honor.

A year ago this month, I lost my dad. Just seven weeks later, on Good Friday, we lost one of my heroes, Ouachita Coach Buddy Benson. Just before Christmas, Coach Outlaw died suddenly. Now, two months after we buried John Outlaw, Willie Tate is gone. All of them played a role in making me the person I am today.

One last memory: Following that disappointing senior season in 1977, I was chosen by a Hope radio station for something called the KXAR Dream Team, which was meant to honor the top high school football players in southwest Arkansas.

Coach Tate announced that he would take me to Hope for the banquet. We rode in his Ford to Hope, just the two of us. With my football career at an end, he discussed things with me not as a player but instead as a friend.

As we made our way back up Interstate 30 that night following the banquet, it hit me somewhere around Prescott.

I was no longer being treated as a boy.

Under Willie Tate’s tutelage, I had become a man.

A Sunday walk in Hot Springs

Monday, March 5th, 2012

For a fourth consecutive year, I made the short trip to Hot Springs for the Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament, which has been an outstanding addition to an already busy March schedule in the Spa City.

On a warm, windy Sunday afternoon, it was fun to see people from Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and other states wearing their school colors and walking slowly down Bathhouse Row.

The March schedule in Hot Springs includes a St. Patrick’s Day parade that has mushroomed into a nationally known celebration (U.S. News, the online version of the former U.S. News & World Report magazine, had it on its list of the top 10 St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country), the 14 high school state championship games that will be played this Thursday through Saturday and, of course, racing at Oaklawn Park.

I arrived early Sunday so I could walk all the way from Summit Arena to the former Majestic Hotel (what a forlorn anchor to Central Avenue) and back, taking in the scene.

On the one hand, I marvel at how far downtown Hot Springs has come since those sad days in the 1970s and 1980s when that tacky wooden canopy covered the sidewalk across from Bathhouse Row.

On the other hand, I think of how much more downtown Hot Springs could be.

A lot of people have put in a lot of time and money to attract art galleries and additional businesses downtown (though I still miss the auction galleries that captivated me as a child).

The good news:

1. Five of the eight bathhouses now show signs of life. The Quapaw has joined the Buckstaff (the one bathhouse that never closed) in offering baths and other spa services. The Museum of Contemporary Art moved into the Ozark several years ago, and the Fordyce is home to the National Park Service visitor center.

The most recent addition came in December when the Eastern National bookstore that was in the Fordyce moved to the Lamar. What’s known as the Bathhouse Row Emporium is a joint project of Eastern National and the National Park Service.

“The Park Service has been studying uses for the Lamar, particularly the lobby area, since the U.S. Forest Service decided against moving the Ouachita National Forest headquarters into that space in October 2006,” Mark Gregory wrote in The Sentinel-Record.

Josie Fernandez, the Hot Springs National Park superintendent, told the newspaper: “When it was a definite no that the Forest Service was not going to use this space and it was going to be ours, then we quickly realized that we needed to put something in the lobby or the lobby was never going to be enjoyed by the public.”

Fernandez pitched the idea to Eastern National, a nonprofit association that runs bookstores throughout the National Park Service. Last March, the Eastern National board met in Savannah, Ga., and approved the relocation and expansion of the bookstore.

Gregory wrote: “Kevin C. Kissling, director of operations support, said Eastern National serves as an extension of the Park Service’s interpretive program so that the products it sells complement the interpretive message being given to visitors, either through exhibits in visitor centers, tours or other media. … In addition to the other spa-related products, Eastern National is looking at adding custom CDs that would have spa music either from different time periods or different cultures. It would include an introduction to Hot Springs that talks about how, even though spa techniques vary today from Bathhouse Row’s heyday, the end result is the same — relaxation and good health.”

Now if only uses could be found for the Hale, the Maurice and the Superior.

“My mission since I’ve been superintendent has been to restore and reopen all of those vacant bathhouses,” Fernandez said. “And my vision has always been an American flag flying in every building as a sign that we’re open for business. We’re hopeful that we will have two very solid proposals that we can act upon and reopen more buildings.”

 2. Most of the storefronts along Central Avenue are filled, a far cry from the many vacant storefronts during the 1980s. The move by the Gangster Museum to a spot across the street from the bathhouses has helped the visibility of that attraction.

The Vienna Theatre, a 75-seat venue in the Simon Mendel building, has been another welcome addition. Mendel built the building in 1910 to house a clothing store for women. It was one of the few buildings in the 400 block of Central Avenue to survive the great fire of 1928.

Baritone Ken Goodman owns the theater and performs there several nights each week. The space also can be rented.

3. Steve Arrison and others at the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau continue to put on stellar events such as this week of basketball and the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The Summit Arena and the convention center are kept in a first-class condition.

The not-so-good news:

1. I mentioned that scar that was once the Majestic Hotel. Will anyone ever renovate it?

2. You’ve likely read about the troubles of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute and the old Malco Theatre. That institution is an important piece of the cultural puzzle in Hot Springs and needs to succeed.

The Princess Theatre was at that location from 1910-35, when it burned. Renovated as the Malco Music Hall, it was called the Showplace of the South with 1,140 seats and the finest projection and sound equipment available. The Malco was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

3. As written on the Southern Fried blog before, major capital investments still are needed to update the downtown hotels, investments that hopefully could attract a more upscale clientele and help Hot Springs regain its status as the Saratoga of the South.

4. Investors also are needed to attract residents downtown, giving the area a 24-hour vibe. The Medical Arts Building, the Howe-DeSoto Building and other structures along Central Avenue could be attractive for condominium and apartment projects if there were investors with deep pockets and a vision.

Back to the St. Patrick’s Day parade: The event is officially the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

U.S. News wrote: “While this city has the youngest St. Patrick’s Day parade on the list, Hot Springs has been routinely given the distinction as the strangest since its inception in 2003.

“Recent participants include the Irish Elvises and the San Diego Chicken, among others. It also receives the title of the shortest procession of note, with a route on Bridge Street that is only 98 feet long. Featuring bagpipers, floats and appearances from the parade king and queen, the Hot Springs parade is presided over by a celebrity grand marshal, who keeps the crowd on its toes throughout the event. Previous grand marshals include Mario Lopez and Pauly Shore. We are not making this up.”

Arrison likes the fact that the parade is honored for its strangeness. Hot Springs has a history of strange events and attractions, you see.

“From its very inception, Hot Springs’ parade has celebrated fun, zaniness and uniqueness, and this recognition fits right in with the atmosphere that will fill Hot Springs on March 17,” he said.

Because St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday this year, the festivities will last all day. Broadway between Spring Street and Convention Boulevard will be blocked off beginning at 11 a.m. Live band music will begin at 11:30 a.m.

The actual parade will start at 6:30 p.m. with actor Tim Matheson (Otter from “Animal House”) as the celebrity grand marshal. A street dance will commence at 8 p.m. and last until 11 p.m.

The downtown section of Central Avenue — Arkansas’ most famous stretch for tourists — should be hopping that Saturday.

Here’s hoping those residential and hotel investments follow in the years ahead to further enhance one of the country’s landmark locations.

The Malzahn era begins in Jonesboro

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

I entered the football facility at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro last spring eager to spend some time with the school’s new head football coach, Hugh Freeze.

I was writing a feature story on Freeze for Arkansas Life magazine.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “The rain is falling steadily on this spring morning as the coach sits in his office in the school’s football complex, which is located in one end of a stadium where the seats are rarely filled to capacity. Hugh Freeze still looks like that young man Michael Lewis described in ‘The Blind Side.’

“He greets a visitor warmly and then looks back on a Nov. 29, 2010, speech to the Little Rock Touchdown Club. On that late fall day, his life began to change. The club was meeting for the final time of the season on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Several hundred people, including some of Little Rock’s top business leaders, had gathered for lunch at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock to hear the first-year offensive coordinator at ASU.

“Freeze, who does lots of motivational speaking (he’s a favorite of FedEx founder Fred Smith), was at the top of his game that day. He wowed ’em. Freeze was scheduled to leave the state on a recruiting trip after the speech. He never made it. As it turned out, things were changing quickly in Jonesboro.”

I was seated next to the podium as Freeze finished his speech that day in November 2010. Just as we were concluding the meeting at 1 p.m., the ASU athletic department announced in Jonesboro that a 4 p.m. news conference would be held on campus.

At that news conference, Dean Lee, the ASU athletic director, made it official: Steve Roberts, whose final two seasons in a nine-year stint as ASU’s head coach had ended with 4-8 records, was out.

As news of Roberts’ departure made its way across the state, a cry went up from those who had heard Freeze speak in Little Rock: “There’s no need for a search. The best man for the job is already on the staff.”

The “search” didn’t take long. On Thursday of that week, Freeze was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach at ASU.

Even the most optimistic Red Wolf fan could not have predicted what would happen in the fall of 2011. Arkansas State went 10-2 during the regular season, won the Sun Belt Conference title and earned a spot in a bowl game at Mobile, Ala.

Freeze, of course, parlayed his success at ASU into the head coaching job at Ole Miss.

After one year, he was gone.

You know the rest of the story.

Last Friday afternoon, I visited with Gus Malzahn in the same office where I had chatted with Freeze a year ago.

I sensed an urgency in the building that exceeded what I had felt in early 2011. Sure, there was excitement at this time last year. Now, though, there is also what I can best describe as a feeling of grim determination: A determination to meet the high expectations created by Malzahn’s arrival on campus; a determination to show that last year wasn’t a fluke; a determination to indeed start building the Boise State of the South, the tantalizing label that Malzahn has hung out there.

I’m now writing a feature story on Malzahn for the April issue of Arkansas Life, and I’ve decided to try to answer the question that football fans across the country were asking when it was announced that Malzahn would leave his job as offensive coordinator at Auburn University, where he made $1.3 million annually, to take a pay cut and move to Jonesboro.

The question was this: “What was he thinking?”

I determined that to adequately answer that question, one must drive 70 miles south of Jonesboro to the poor Delta farming community of Hughes, where Malzahn’s coaching career began in 1991.

George Schroeder, the former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter who had met Malzahn when the young coach brought his Hughes Blue Devils to War Memorial Stadium for a state championship game in 1994, tried a year ago to explain to a national audience what makes Malzahn tick.

In a piece for that ran just before Auburn defeated Oregon in the BCS national championship game, Schroeder wrote: “Serious fans understand Malzahn came to Auburn from Tulsa, where his offenses were prolific, and that he broke into college coaching at Arkansas, where it didn’t work out so well. Recruiting junkies know he was at Springdale High before that, with a talented bunch of players running an almost unstoppable attack. Spread offense devotees might remember him from Shiloh Christian in the same town, where passing and scoring records fell and a private school powerhouse was built.

“But the roots go deeper. They go back to a small school in a fading town. Back to when a bus trip to Little Rock was an indescribably big event.

“‘It was a little overwhelming,’ Malzahn says, recalling the scene that night 16 years ago at War Memorial Stdium as a ‘three-ring circus’ — barely controlled. For the kids, sure. But also for the coach, a bundle of nerves who figured it was his one shot, and he’d better not blow it.

“Bypassed by the interstate, and by progress, Hughes is six miles from the Mississippi River but much further from the beaten path. The hamlet of less than 2,000 people is only 15 miles from Interstate 40, but the high school principal once described it to me as ’15 years ago.’ The school was known for its basketball; there wasn’t much football tradition. It was the perfect Petri dish for a coach who was as hungry to learn as he was to win. Or just hungry, period.

“Malzahn recently made news because, after turning down an offer to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, he accepted a new contract at Auburn that will pay him $1.3 million a year. When I met him in 1994, he made less than $25,000. Along with a young family, he lived in a trailer. He taught world geography to seventh graders, health to the high school kids — and football to himself.

“‘I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,’ Malzahn says, and when you laugh, he insists: ‘No, I’m serious. I really didn’t.'”

So there you have it. This is a man who often describes himself as “a high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”

His roots are in this state, and they’re deep. And his career path has been anything but traditional, so why stop now?

He’s also driven, trying to learn new things about the sport each day.

“Auburn players tell stories now about how at all times, text messages will pop into their phones,” Schroeder wrote in January 2011. “Malzahn will be watching film and will glean some tiny bit of information — say, a nuance in a receiver’s route — and he’ll send it to them, right away. They’re convinced the coach eats, sleeps and breathes football. Well, check that. Based on when those texts arrive, they’re not sure he sleeps at all, just eats and breathes.

“In Hughes, back before text messages — heck, before email and the Internet had become a way of life — the players understood their coach was putting in long hours. Saturdays and Sundays, the three football coaches would gather to watch film at one of their homes — there wasn’t a TV available at the school — and devise the game plan. It’s all pretty standard stuff. But at Hughes, which played in the state’s second-smallest high school classification? In the early 1990s? It was revolutionary. And already, Malzahn’s ability to tune everything out and intensely focus on football was beginning to emerge.”

Let’s allow Malzahn to answer a few more questions.

Why turn down Vanderbilt a year ago and its reported offer of a $3 million annual salary?

“The timing was not good,” he told me. “We were about to play for the national championship. You may only get to do that once in a career, and I’m not good at doing two things at once. I never would have been able to live with myself if I had done a bad job because of distractions and we had lost the championship game.

“We won the national championship and then we won more games in 2011 at Auburn than we thought we would. So it all worked out.”

I pressed him a bit. Did he not later regret having passed up the opportunity to be a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, especially since Vanderbilt did better than expected in 2011 and earned a berth in the Liberty Bowl?

“I’ve always been a guy to take it a season at a time,” Malzahn said. “I’m always focused on the task at hand. I’m not one to look back or look ahead.”

At the end of the 2011 season, the Auburn offensive coordinator determined he was ready to be a head coach at the college level.

For a time it appeared he might be the head coach at the University of North Carolina, but that didn’t work out.

For a time it appeared he might be the head coach at the University of Kansas, but that didn’t work out, either.

Gus Malzahn thus finds himself in Jonesboro trying to build the Boise State of the South.

He said he’s pleased with his first signing class and said he’s committed to recruiting all parts of Arkansas hard in future years. Given the relationship he still has with high school coaches in the state — and the relationship that his new defensive coordinator, Forrest City native John Thompson, has — it’s not hard to believe that ASU will do well in recruting Arkansas talent.

Malzahn said that while he expects a successful 2012 season, he’s thinking long term and wants to build the program “the right way.”

Looking out the window of his office at that stadium that rarely has been full, I asked him if there will come a day when the 30,000 seats are filled consistently.

“There’s no doubt that’s going to happen,” Malzahn answered without hesitation.

Being the Boise State of the South would fill those seats. Such a program will take a number of years to build.

Is Gus Malzahn in Jonesboro for the long haul or just passing through like Ray Perkins and Hugh Freeze? That’s one question I cannot answer.

Unlike Perkins and Freeze, Malzahn is an Arkansas native, which gives Arkansas State fans a reason for hope.